Coded language is common in Chinese cyberspace, not just to reduce the risk of official retribution, but also to show off creativity in the fight for free expression, says Xiao Qiang, a China Internet expert at the University of California-Berkeley.
The imaginary “grass mud horse,” which sounds in Chinese like a strong expletive, was part of a viral video hit last year that has spawned more than 40 other mythical beasts whose names derive from news items and jokes popularized online. The grass mud horse is a symbol of frustration with the government’s censorship of the Internet.
“Most jokes have relatively safe targets,” not China’s top leaders, Xiao says. “But they express deep frustration and anger at social injustice. People need a way to express themselves. No comedians are political enough to express that, so the political critiques are spread online and are becoming a mainstream activity,” he says.
Zhang Xiaozhe, a journalist at a Chinese financial newspaper, says he’s a big fan: “I read political jokes online every day and sometimes laugh out loud and share them with friends or save them. The Internet is freer than television or newspapers. It’s quick, interactive, with more wisdom of the masses.”
For more on coded language online, see CDT’s Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon.